Film Review: The Last Dalai Lama?

Impressive access without much impetus adds up to an underwhelming portrait of the 14th Dalai Lama.
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Director Mickey Lemle’s The Last Dalai Lama?—a chummy, ambling primer on the life and character of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama—seems content just to spend time in the presence of the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet. That’s a worthy pursuit for Richard Gere, Buddhist monks, or anyone touched by the humble sagacity of His Holiness, and even for a film that might document for posterity the 14th Dalai Lama’s philosophies, wit and tender expressions of humanity.

However, if we’re meant just to sit back and absorb his words, or take in the powerful energy radiated by the Nobel Peace Prize-winner, then the atmosphere, if not narrative drive, should matter more than it does here. Loose in structure, as well as in aesthetic rigor, Lemle’s film is composed mainly of interviews framed in tight close-up and with little visual harmony. Some of the footage was shot for the filmmaker’s 1993 feature Compassion in Exile: The Life of the 14th Dalai Lama, to which this appears to be a slightly overlapping sequel.

Perhaps too in awe of his celebrated subject to apply a firmer hand in shaping a new narrative, Lemle presents a video- and photo-assisted update on His Holiness that doesn’t dive deep beyond the public persona. But Lemle does capture endearing, occasionally even startling, reminders of his subject’s underlying strength and iron will. A peaceful monk who’s stood nearly his entire life as a leader and symbol of his nation’s resistance to the overbearing power of China—he’s shown in archival footage, at 19, meeting with Chairman Mao—the Dalai Lama is not without his weaknesses. Smiling, he confesses that he has a short temper that sometimes he directs at members of his staff. Of course, no such behavior makes it into the film. Conflict is only ever discussed in theoretical or historical terms, never depicted.

The Dalai Lama’s confession comes up during a particularly insightful discussion of conquering negative emotions like anger, fear and jealousy. He talks of training our minds to wield positive thoughts, like affection and forgiveness, as a “counterforce” to negativity. In fact, many of the Dalai Lama’s learned philosophies are spelled out by His Holiness and by others interviewed, from Philip Glass and James Kowalski, the current dean of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, to no less than George W. Bush. The former President makes a brief, articulate appearance to explain the inspiration behind the portrait he painted of a “gentle” man he so admires: “If he’s so peaceful, can I be so peaceful?”

Bush’s portrait of the Dalai Lama actually appears to be a more complex one than this documentary, and at least as artful. Lemle and editor Don Casper indulge more than one montage zooming through pans across photos of Tibetan martyrs who’ve self-immolated to protest Chinese occupation of Tibet. Less might have been more in that case. And they’ve left plenty of filler on the table, with unilluminating sequences of museum assistants hanging photos for an exhibition, or an extended montage of colorfully rendered charts and graphs representing The Atlas of Emotions, a Dalai Lama-commissioned book mapping the landscape of feelings. The trip to the publisher’s office, part of the film’s cursory survey of causes supported by His Holiness, meanders, as do many scenes, lacking any internal dramatic arc, or profound connection to a larger plan other than promoting the Dalai Lama’s message of making Buddhist knowledge available to everyone, regardless of religion.

The film’s one major thread of investigation, discussed more than pursued, regards the question raised in the title. Lemle, who appears on-camera, refers to “the geopolitical chess match” in which the 14th Dalai Lama is perpetually engaged against the Chinese, who are determined to see him succeeded by a 15th Dalai Lama of their own choosing. For the 14th, resistance has taken many forms, including a recent declaration that he will be the last in his generations-long lineage of a single consciousness.

So, for the price of admission, or streaming, one can pull up a front seat to hear from the Lama, now in his 80s, while there is a Lama and he’s still walking the Earth in this body. Lemle observes the Dalai Lama’s speeches, along with the ceremonies and rituals in which he participates, with utter reverence. In general, the film evinces none of the healthy skepticism that might crack open a documentary subject, to reinforce or to debunk a point of view. There is instead enough wisdom to fill a half-day seminar—delivered with about a seminar’s level of cinematic entertainment value.

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